Ah, our fuzzy friend the Bumble bee. It is actually part of the Order of bees called Hymenoptera and in the Family known as Apis or “Apidae”. Yes, that makes it related to the honey bee which is where most people recognize the word “Apis” from. It is specifically in the Genus “Bombus” and from there we can tell them apart by a sub-genus, species, then sub-species. For most common discussion, we start with and use the genus, etc…
For example, the bumble bee that was recently added to the U.S. Endangered species list is “Bombus affinis”. Most people know it as the “Rusty Patch” bumble bee.
Actually, there are 8 sub-genus and 46 different species of bumble bees in North America alone.
Bumble bees are some of the fuzziest bees of them all. That makes them incredibly effective pollinators. All that fuzz helps them bee one of the best in another way as well. They are the first to emerge in the spring and the last to settle down in the Autumn due to their special adaptation to dealing with cooler temperatures than other bees might tolerate.
Just here in the Omaha, Nebraska area where the Bee Smart beekeeping project is based, we can expect to see at least 6 to 10 different bumble bee species the Northern states and especially the Western states have an even greater diversity which can see 11 species or so on the low side up to as many as 24 different species in an area on the higher end. What’s more is that due to the fact that not all of the continental U.S. have been thoroughly surveyed, there could very likely be even more than we realize.
Bumble bees are semi-social bees that don’t build huge nests like honey bees but small nests either at ground level or below ground most of the time. In most cases, Queen bumble bees lay eggs that are intended to be reproductive and able to mate and start their own new nests the following Spring.
Once a new queen has emerged and mated in the Spring, she typically flies off to a new location, abandoning the nest site where she was born. Once she finds a new site to her satisfaction, she begins building a new nest and, collecting food up and then laying several eggs. When those bees emerge, they generally aren’t mated but work to help build the nest and allow the queen to focus on laying more eggs, building the colony while the others handle the foraging and defenses.
Bumble bees are some of the largest bees around and to match that size, they have some of the biggest stingers for defending the nest. Despite their weaponry and in some cases aggressive tendencies to defend the immediate nest site, bumble bees are also well known to be some of the most docile and least aggressive of all the bees out and about when they are foraging. You are least likely to be stung by a bumble bee away from their nest while they are bobbing around your flower garden.
Bumble bees are affected by pesticides and have a number of predators and parasitic pests that spread disease among them like honey bees and other types of bees have to deal with. It is ALWAYS highly recommended to leave a bumble bee nest alone if you find one somewhere as they typically won’t cause harm unless their nest entrance is located somewhere human and animal traffic will be very near and cause disturbance.